Caledonia is a
group of islands about halfway between New Zealand and Australia, the largest
island being Grand Terre, a civilized place whose economy depends upon the
tourist trade and nickel mining. This big island broke off from Australia about
65 million years ago; the smaller islands of Lifou, Mare, and the Isle of Pines arose
independently from undersea volcanoes.
All have a classic tropical atmosphere with sunshine, gentle breezes,
smooth white sandy beaches, and swaying palm trees. Of course, my attention is
on the birds.
Being isolated in the
middle of the Pacific and from each other, there are a lot of endemic (found
nowhere else) birds. On New Caledonia’s big island, there are about 27 endemics,
including a very special one. The Kagu, a short virtually flightless bird that
looks like a 22 inch tall grayish white heron with red legs, an enormous
moveable crest and very odd and loud calls, is the island’s symbol. Very
curious and uncautious birds, like many island birds, they were driven to the
edge of extinction (60 birds) by hunting, the pet trade, and feral dogs. Their
population is now about 1500 – reasonable numbers now after full protection by
the government, and a strategy to kill wild dogs and control the enormous
population of the non-native red deer. The Kagu spends its time on or near the
ground, where it hunts its invertebrate prey, and builds a nest of sticks
on the forest floor. Both parents incubate a single egg, as well as rear the
As soon as we drove
into the rain forest in the mountains above Noumea, the capital of New
Caledonia, we saw signs of the Kagu. As it probes in the soil for worms and
other invertebrates, it digs shallow depressions in the dirt. We got out of the car and in 30 seconds we
spotted our first Kagu. Our guide scratched the soil and noisily moved leaves
around and the birds came closer, thinking we had discovered something. In the
next 20 minutes we saw five birds, all very close; see photo. As this bird is
the only one in its family, it is certainly a unique
bird. Given its small
population and restriction to one island in the middle of the Pacific, it’s
quite a treat to add it to my life list.
We didn’t see many
other birds on this day except for the ubiquitous and very common New
Caledonian Friarbird and Grey-faced Honeyeater. Both were everywhere and sang
like nobody’s business. A Speckled
Fantail and Glossy Swiftlet were bonuses. Rainforests are notoriously difficult
to see birds in, but we heard doves, a kingfisher, a few parrots, and other
calls that avoided my attempts at identifying.
As we approached Noumea
on our cruise ship in the early am, we saw Wedge-tailed and Flesh-footed
Shearwaters, Greater Terns, and Noddy Terns and we have been seeing boobies,
gannets, shearwaters and petrels fairly regularly out at sea. But you just
can’t beat the Kagu.
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